By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Veterans Day is a solemn anniversary, a day set aside not to celebrate victory in a great battle, but to honor the sacrifices that brought peace. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was not marked by the roar of cannon. Rather, it was the moment the guns of the First World War were silenced by courage, devotion to duty, and a commitment to freedom.
The virtues that brought about that silence echo throughout our history, so it is appropriate that Veterans Day now honors all who have defended our nation in all places and at all times.
We owe them a great debt. We repay that debt in part with the gratitude we express on Veterans Day, but only in part. Today, some 20 million Americans wear the proud title of “Veteran,” nearly 127,000 here in our great state of Maine. To put that in perspective, Maine has more veterans per capita than all but two of the other states in the country. We are proud of our state’s contributions to protecting our nation.
Mainers also should be proud of our state’s leadership in caring for our veterans. More than a century and a half ago, our nation’s first hospital for veterans was established at Togus.
On March 4, 1865, with victory in the Civil War close at hand, President Abraham Lincoln ended his second inaugural address with a commitment “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan….”
The day before, President Lincoln had taken action to care for those who had born the battle by signing into law a bill establishing a national network of hospitals for wounded veterans. In one of the last acts of a remarkable life defined by compassion, President Lincoln ensured that the patriots who saved our nation would not be forgotten. Instead, they would find care and healing through a national network of soldiers’ homes, which became the template for succeeding generations of our VA hospitals of today.
As more than 80,000 of those Civil War veterans were from Maine, it was fitting that the very first of those homes opened its doors in the state that had sacrificed so much.
The Togus property originally was a summer resort built by Horace Beals, a wealthy granite merchant from Rockland. The resort, Togus Springs, opened in 1859 but failed during the Civil War and closed in 1863. The federal government bought the property and converted it into what was called the Eastern Branch of the National Asylum.
The first veteran was admitted to Togus on Nov. 10, 1866. The veteran population of the home remained under 400 until a building program two years later increased its capacity to 3,000. The home was organized much like a military camp, with the veterans living in barracks and wearing modified uniforms. President Ulysses S. Grant visited Togus in 1873 to review the soldiers who had served under him during the Civil War.
Maine continues to lead the way in caring for our veterans, not only at Togus but also in clinics around the State. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the VA’s first Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, which was established in Caribou. That pioneering work has been a profound benefit to America’s 3.5 million rural veterans who now receive care close to home at more than 800 CBOCs throughout the country. As a former pilot site for the highly successful ARCH program, Maine continues to help more veterans receive the care they need closer to home.
As our population of veterans has grown, aged, and diversified, so too has Togus adapted to these changes to become a modern, multi-dimensional medical care facility that provides high quality health care from a dedicated staff. In 2014, we celebrated the opening of the Women’s Clinic at Togus. As more and more women serve in increasingly demanding roles, Maine’s leadership remains essential. In August construction began on a new Fisher House at Togus that will provide a free and hospitable “home away from home” for the families of veterans receiving medical care here at the hospital. This allows them to be close to their loved ones at a stressful time, which aids the healing process.
And just this September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognized the VA Maine Healthcare System with its top five-star rating, ranking it 16th out of 146 VA systems across the country. In quality of care, patient satisfaction, and ease of access, Togus – America’s first veterans’ hospital – continues to put veterans first.
When the men and women of our armed forces return home from war, we have an obligation to care for them and welcome them all the way home. Maine and Togus have a proud record of doing just that by honoring and caring for our veterans.